Thanks to a regular Church of the Churchless visitor, "cc," for letting me know about an interesting article in the Atlantic: There's More to Life Than Being Happy.
For sure. Maybe. Who can say?
Those are some of my reactions to the article, which focuses on Viktor Frankl and his well-known book, "Man's Search for Meaning."
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life.
...Now, over twenty years later, the book's ethos -- its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self -- seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"
Hmmm. Is that really true? Does one need a reason to be happy?
Recently I wrote a blog post called "Meaning of life is whatever you find meaningful." I don't think meaning can be pursued any more than happiness can. Yet Frankl and other advocates of meaning over happiness seem to believe that it can be chosen, fostered, nurtured.
Also, that a meaningful life is a more worthy goal than a happy life. Which assumes the two are different. And research noted in the article seems to show that they are to some extent.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
I don't recall ever reading Frankl's book. I don't know much about Frankl.
My posssibly ignorant impression is that his focus on meaning relates to a religious/spiritual viewpoint where suffering deepens the soul; life is best lived by feeling part of a community which existed before us and will exist after us; and doing good for others is preferable to pursuing one's own happiness.
Sounds like a Protestant ethic sort of worldview (I understand that Frankl is Jewish).
I'm skeptical of this claimed clear distinction between meaning and happiness, especially the assertion that meaning is superior to happiness. It seems to me that many people -- including a majority of religious believers -- find meaning in illusory imagination.
They cope with unhappiness by fantasizing a future where distressing events become part of a meaningful historical trajectory. For instance:
God is blessing me with suffering to test my faith, so I will be worthy to enter heaven after I die.
My bad karmas are being burned off by what I'm going through; good news for my next birth.
Bearing my cross like Jesus did, I am coming closer to my Lord.
Well, I doubt it. But, hey, whatever works for you.
If the viscissitudes of life are better endured by seeing them as part of some mysterious divine plan, go for it. I just question whether someone who does this should look down on those who just do what they do because they feel like doing it -- no grand cosmic meaningful purpose assumed.
Contrast Frankl's perspective with a considerably lesser known author, Raymond M. Smullyan -- who wrote one of my favorite books, "The Tao is Silent." Here's some excerpts from his The Tao is Ever Spontaneous chapter.
Does the Tao have a purpose? I once asked a female, materialistic, atheist biologist if she believed the universe has a purpose. She replied, "No, I would say that the universe has a direction, but not a purpose." This was an interesting response and quite Taoistic in a way.
To attribute "purpose" to the Tao is sort of un-Taoistic. The Tao's inner principal is spontaneity rather than purpose.
...Incidentally, to avoid misunderstanding, I am not against a person having a purpose; I only deplore the attitude that one always should have a purpose.
...I have also said that I find it extremely hostile and destructive to always ask a person what his purpose is. I am thinking of a particular case of an unsuccessful musician who once said to an aspiring musician, "I really think you ought to ask yourself why you want to give concerts."
This struck me as horrible! Why on earth should an aspiring musician ask himself such a ridiculous question as why he wants to give concerts? Is it not enough that he wants to give them?
...Another good answer is the following Zen poem by Bukoku Kokushi.
Although not consciously trying to guard
the rice field from intruders,
The scarecrow is not after all
standing to no purpose.
Which brings to mind a final thought about the relation between meaning and happiness: it seems to me that people who perform supposedly "selfless" acts do so because it makes them feel good. That is, they feel better doing something for the benefit of others, than they would if they didn't do that thing.
So they enjoy a more meaningful life through their altruism. Nice, but not selfless.
The researchers mentioned above found that meaning and happiness are somewhat separable. For example, suffering can make a person unhappy, yet he or she can find a deep meaning in it.
Here's a Taoist sort of notion in line with Smullyan's book.
Perhaps the ultimate "selfless" act is to seek neither meaning nor happiness from an action. One just does what he or she is drawn to do at a particular moment.
No search for meaning, as Frankl eulogizes. Not even a search for happiness -- though both meaning and happiness may accompany the doing.
What if Frankl chose to stay in Austria and accompany his parents to the concentration camp for no significant reason, just because it was what he wanted to do?
I'd find that praiseworthy because there was no meaning to it, not even though there was no meaning to it. But this is just how I look upon meaning. It's whatever is meaningful to me.